My dad didn’t take his test results well. He came home, stretched out on our blue couch in the living room, covered himself with a thin blanket, folded his arms, and waited to die. He had the latest stage of cancer so thoroughly spread out, that even the doctor was surprised how dad was still alive at this point. The prognosis – one month of life left.
Two years prior to this, my dad got a job, which required a health checkup. On that exam, a few little spots were discovered on his lungs, and a biopsy had been recommended. It was of concern because we had lived in Ukraine, where a few years prior the Chernobyl disaster had occurred. But my dad, he was a man. Macho man. Superhero. He wasn’t feeling pain anywhere, so why in the world should he get a biopsy done? If it were truly something serious, he would be feeling pain, and that would justify getting the biopsy. Well now it was too late. The cancer had spread; there was zero hope of any kind of treatment helping. In fact, it had spread to a part of his brain, which was causing the seizures.
The second time he had a seizure was no less scary than the first. He fell to the floor, and half of his body was jerking and trembling uncontrollably. Again, I made a familiar phone call, the ambulance arrived, and off we went to the hospital. We were informed that as the cancer grows, more seizures would take place. And they did. I began to dread waking up, not knowing if that would be a day where another seizure would happen.
My dad was a very disciplined, brilliant man. Immigrating into the United States of America at the age of 34, he immersed himself in all the English language programs and books he could possibly find. Within a year he was the designated translator/interpreter in our social circle. That year I went into first grade and learned the language there. We would have a competition of who knew more English words.
“Dad, I have a new one today!”
“What is it? I learned many words today too, I bet I already know it.”
“Nope! What’s hotdog?”
That was the one word that stumped him, because literally hot and dog are two words, which made no sense combined, and hotdog was a food item that I saw in the cafeteria that day. It felt so good to outsmart my dad.
Each morning before the school bus picked me up, dad would give me a Russian language book, from which I needed to read, and if I was done quickly, to spend the remainder of the time practicing Russian handwriting. He always ordered books from a book company, and sometimes he would let me browse through the catalog to choose a children’s book too. These were days before we had the computer or Internet or iPhones, so our free time was spent playing tag, riding bikes, or reading books.
One day somebody recommended a natural cancer treatment book to my dad. This did wonders for my dad’s attitude; it was as if he got another shot at life. The next day a juicing machine appeared in our kitchen, followed by bags of vegetables. I remember chopping up beets, celery, other greens, and carrots. My siblings and I took turns making juices; we would sneak a few sips, especially carrot juice. My dad began juicing furiously, hoping to cure the cancer. He ordered a giant box of special herbs from another country.
I baked some rolls for him, his favorite, ones that were labeled “Daddy’s Buns” in the recipe book. Each buttered bun had one raisin at the top for decoration. This was a recipe I had perfected because dad encouraged me. He supported most of my little projects. Sometimes I felt that since I was the oldest, I was his favorite. Once I wanted to bake bread, so I called my aunt, got the recipe, and had the ingredients purchased. I had no idea what dough was supposed to look like, and my mom was busy tending to the young babies, so it was completely up to me. The first water/yeast batch didn’t rise, so I just mixed it in with the remaining ingredients and got a lumpy sticky batter. The “dough” needed to rise, so I poured the batter into five bread loaf pans and stuck them in the oven while I went to school. Hopeful that the batter would rise since it had more hours in the oven, I was disappointed to find the same lumpy batter at the same level in each loaf pan. They baked for hours. Finally they seemed to be fully cooked. The final result was a brick bread that looked identical to an actual brick. I tried it; it was disgusting.
My dad sawed off a corner, tasted it, and said, “Delicious!” and ate a few more bites. I was very sad the bread didn’t turn out and was ready to toss the loaves into the trash.
“Nonsense! Bring me some foil, I’ll wrap up the remaining loaves to put in the freezer and I’ll eat them later while I eat this one up!” His encouragement kept me going, and I eventually learned there were cooking books in the school library that I could check out and keep experimenting. Yet these Daddy’s Buns he wouldn’t touch because of the strict juicing requirements.
People began visiting us, praying for us. The seizures continued. I stopped going to school. My mom had to deliver the baby, who was the 10th child into our family, so one of the relatives drove her to the hospital. My dad’s mother came to stay with us. She was a fantastic baker, yet a terrible cook. Her bland combination of water, noodles, potatoes and carrots, which she called soup, was appalling. It challenged me to do a cook-off, so the next pot had a flavorful soup like the one I’ve seen mom make. Grandma baked delicious kolach, yet she couldn’t tell me the recipe because everything was made “na glaz”, or by the eyeball method. Since I had more time, I followed her around and recorded how much of each ingredient went into the recipe.
By this point my dad received a hospital bed, which was situated in our living room. He had a steel walker and managed to hobble around that way. Then one day, a worker from Hospice Care arrived. She said she needed to talk to us about what we are doing, what are our plans after dad passes away, does he have a will, and so forth. I’m not sure why it was a shocker to me, probably because most of the people who visited us kept saying “we will pray for you” and “your dad will get healed”, and here was this woman saying these very morbid sentences. I got angry with her.
“No thank you! Our dad will get well! We are praying very hard, we believe in God, we believe he will get healed! So there!”
Not sure how effective my outburst was, because the woman kept talking, and saying phrases like “it’s hard” and “being in denial” and “comfort care” and eventually left a packet for us.
As my dad’s health deteriorated, he was moved to a nursing home where he could receive 24/7 care.
Some elders from churches came and urged us to pray more intensely. They had several suggestions and questions.
“Perhaps this is God punishing you? Were you very disobedient to your parents? Or you’re not praying enough? You don’t have enough faith?”
In horror I recalled all the times I disobeyed my parents. For some reason I was the troublemaker; I would talk back, I would tell jokes and make my siblings laugh in church, or I didn’t pay attention during a sermon. But I thought I was fine, since I’d already served my punishment by either getting the “switch” (tree branch whipping) or standing an hour or two in a paper-bag in my time-out corner. I must’ve been born naughty. When I was even younger, I got the stinging nettle punishment. When I disobeyed, dad would get a stinging nettle plant and glide it over my leg until it was completely covered in a most unpleasant burning, itching sensation. And here I was, disobedient and naughty to such a degree that God was punishing me by making my dad have cancer.
“Or perhaps there are some hidden sins he needs to confess?”
I listened to the uncomfortable dialogue of people attempting to find all the faults in my dad’s life. He read a lot of books, too many books. Perhaps he was swayed by weird teachings? He ordered many books from a catalog, who took the orders? It was a woman? Did he spend too much time talking to her? Was something else going on? These concerns were brought to him. Anything remotely suspicious or less than ideal living was a factor he had to deal with: he made phone calls, apologized to anybody who might have ever gotten offended by him.
We took turns visiting dad in the nursing home. These visits were more tolerable because they didn’t include the sterile, antiseptic smell of hospitals that made me nauseated.
One such evening I opened the back door to welcome my mom from the nursing home. She had grandma with her.
“Um, mom? Why is grandma with you? She usually stays with dad.”
She didn’t meet my eyes.
She looked at me. Then in a barely audible voice, she whispered, “They let dad go tonight.”
What kind of an answer was that? Did he get healed miraculously?
“Mom! What do you mean?”
She opened the medicine cabinet, which was located right next to the door, and took out a round container of valerian root. She shook out a few capsules and handed them to me and put a few more in her mouth.
“Take these, they will calm the nerves.”
And then I knew what she meant.